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Wheaton man fights for cleaner air, recognized by White House

WHEATON – Just a few short years ago, Dan Dolan-Laughlin was on his deathbed.

A sufferer of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, or COPD, for more than 30 years, Dolan-Laughlin’s health began to fail in October 2011.

“When I talk about it now I always reference that old commercial about the roach motel,” he said. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”

His doctors told him he only had a few days to live – smoking when he was younger was taking its toll. He was already on 24-hour oxygen and frequented hospitals for flare-ups and steroid injections. Now, doctors said he would have to go onto breathing machines, something Dolan-Laughlin was willing to do.

Then, at what he calls an eleventh hour miracle, he received a double lung transplant. He soon transformed from a man who struggled to get up the stairs of his Wheaton townhome to one so active that he would put younger men to shame.

“What the transplant did is hard to describe,” he said. “The life I thought was gone was suddenly back. I could do things I couldn’t do for years. Next week I’m going to the Adirondacks to climb a 4,500-foot mountain.”

But he said that he wasn’t content to sit back and enjoy his second chance. He was involved with the American Lung Association for a few years before the transplant, even participating in the Lung Walk event while on oxygen. Now he wanted to give more.

“I don’t have COPD now, but when you’re diagnosed you start circling the drain,” he said. “What you do before you go down that drain is elective.”

He formed a local COPD “Better Breathers” support group to keep people active and began getting more involved with the association itself. He decided to use his new lungs to “yell loud and strong about what’s wrong” and educate people about the dangers of pollution and climate change, things that especially affect those with COPD.

Peter Iwanowicz, the Director of the ALA’s Healthier Campaign, first met Dolan-Laughlin at an event in February 2012, where he gave a speech only a few months after his transplant.

“He spoke so eloquently to the group about his story, but more importantly, he spoke about why we need clean air,” Iwanowicz said.

Dolan-Laughlin continues to stand in the spotlight, testifying at multiple Environmental Protection Agency hearings and meeting with legislators about policy changes.

On July 9, he and 10 other people were honored at the White House as “Champions of Change” who are working to protect public health in a changing climate.

“I am an actual victim who can speak about the changes we need to make,” Dolan-Laughlin said.

Iwanowicz says that people like Dolan-Laughlin who can put a face to a policy issue are instrumental in the fight against climate change.

“When Dan began to speak, a hush fell over the audience, and everyone listened to his story,” he said. “And at the end of the talk, he was the only one to receive applause for what he was doing.”

Dolan-Laughlin reiterated that he didn’t believe that climate change and the environment should be a partisan battle.

“The posturing here in Washington is mind-boggling,” he said. “I’m not sure how people can deny the right of clean air to the country.”

So his work continues, he said. Through his fight, he hasn’t forgotten how close he was to death and how those around him helped him get to where he is today.

“The champions are the people who struggle every day with COPD or other problems, the doctors who treat those people, the rehab nurses who help people extend their lives,” he said. “They’re heroes. I’m just a voice.”

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